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Bottom up

If you know specifically what you are searching for, you can take the search direction bottom up. That means, if you are searching with a specific catch word and if you don't get useful results, repeat the search request with a more common search item.

However- before searching with superior (advanced) terms, first try it with synonyms. Here are some examples:

Often you will find an area for entering advanced terms, which will then allow you to specify your search.

If you are searching the WWW, the instruments for specific searches are called search engines.

Top down

If you are not very familiar with the knowledge area you are searching in, it would be better to begin your systematical online research with a superior item (advanced term) and then to continue with increasingly specific items (which you will become familiar with during the research process).

If you are searching the WWW, the instrument for browsing beginning with a more common item is the thematic index (or web catalogue).

Search matrix

Often, social scientists don't manage their online research well. It's frequently a process of trial and error, not systematically planned research. But it does not have to be that way!
Imagine, many of our searches cannot be processed with one search item; often it is necessary to make a combined search with two and more search items or terms.
By searching within a database or a catalogue, do you think that the right search items are at your fingertips? I don't think so.

A search matrix could be an aid for creating an efficient research strategy and for realizing the search. If one requires closely and distantly related associations (matches), synonyms, and English or foreign-language translations for several concepts, and wants to be able to link them all into a single searching instrument- then a matrix is an obvious solution in the early stages of the search.

An empty matrix looks like this:


item 1
item 2 item 3
wider term      
narrower term      
english translation 1    


english translation 2    


if your first language is not English, it is important that you translate your search terms into English seeing as it is the language of most search resources.

Example: You are searching for the rotating function of the EU's Council of Regions

function, role
Council of Regions European Union
wider term institutions, decision making council, representation of interests, lobbyism international organisation / organization
narrower term function regional interest, interest of specific region(s) interest groups in the european union
Synonym federalism, regionalism regional policy european policy
Acronym  -  CoR EU, EG

With the search matrix (incidentally a professional instrument for reference librarians), you have a tool for well structured research into questions which are composed of several items.

Other search techniques

Block Building

If your question is too varied or complicated for a search matrix, split the topic in blocks (or sections) and try to find catch words in the database you are using, or make a search matrix for part of the question. Perhaps it is possible to summarize blocks using the necessary search words with the help of Boolean operators (AND, OR, and NOT) in your searching inquiry.

Citation Pearl Growing

If a specific document corresponds to your thematic interest, you can search for it in a library online-catalogue or a database. You can enter your search and check the catchword results offered by the librarian or the processor. Then you can use those catchwords to search for similar documents. By doing this you can grow or expand the catchwords for your search by applying the interim results. In German, there is a precise term for it: Schneeballsystem, literally, snowball effect or system. If you want to apply this effect using internet search machines, choose those which give you the option refine your search (sometimes also named "clustering") or similar results.